The 'Pirates of the Caribbean' Series Will Never Die

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and discusses the ending of the movie in detail.

Earlier this week, Universal announced a slate of movies set to extend out from its upcoming The Mummy reboot, which stars Tom Cruise and arrives in theaters this June, and culminate in an Avengers-like tea-up. It's called the "Dark Universe" and features Javier Bardem as Frankenstein's monster and Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man. In an odd bit of stealth-branding, a covert "Dark Universe" prequel arrives in theaters this weekend.

It's called Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and it's dark as hell.

No, the fifth film in the long-running series inspired by the Disney theme park attraction is not technically part of the "Dark Universe," however, it boasts Bardem as a frightening creature with decaying flesh and Depp playing a man who wants to disappear during many of his scenes. There are elaborate action set-pieces involving undead armies, exposition heavy scenes about enchanted objects, and even a post-credits tag scene teasing future installments. As the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score suggests, we are already living in the darkest universe. 

Things weren't always like this: Director Gore Verbinski's 2003 franchise-starter, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a clever and stylish swashbuckling blockbuster. After years of increasingly lackluster sequels, the treasure doesn't shine as bright, leaving many to wonder if the series will even continue after this latest sequel fired across the bow. Will the Pirates set sail again? Or has this decade-old property finally walked the plank? Here's what we know. 

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Pictures

Will Johnny Depp continue to do the series?

This is the billion dollar question.

Much of the pre-release press about Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has been about Depp's troubled personal life, bizarre financial choices, and erratic behavior on set. In the movie, he definitely gives the type of performance that make you believe reports that the actor being fed his lines through an earpiece, a move worthy of late career Brando making The Island of Dr. Moreau, were true. Watching Depp mug his way through the movie, looking less like a parody of a washed-up rock star and more like the actual thing, is exhausting. He looks orange and sad -- like he hasn't washed off the Trump makeup off from his The Art of the Deal spoof.

Besides one inspired sequence involving a guillotine, there's very little of the original film's surreal comic mojo to be found in Dead Men Tell No Tales. The plot, which centers around a hunt for a curse-shattering Trident of Poseidon, is ludicrously complex. That wouldn't be a problem if the movie, which was directed by Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) from a script by Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can), had a genuine sense of adventure or a light touch. These movies have always been overstuffed -- the third film is nearly three hours long -- but, at least under Verbinski's reign, they had a playful and mischievous quality. That's gone.

Originally more of a supporting character in the first movie, Jack Sparrow has swallowed the series whole. The elaborate bank-heist that opens the movie, which finds Sparrow getting pulled on a giant house that tumbles through a community Bad Boys II style, is the perfect metaphor for Depp's involvement in these films: He destroys everything in his path.

Will he bring this franchise down with him? It's hard to say. In recent interviews, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has steered the series through troubled waters before, was insistent that the films can't go on without Depp's involvement. "The secret to any successful franchise is picking talented people, and Johnny is absolutely key to the success of Pirates," he told Digital Spy in a recent interview. "He's such a unique character, such an endearing character, and such an irreverent character all in one."

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
Walt Disney Pictures

Or will the movies attempt to go on without him?

There are little grace notes of fun to be found in the movie: Bardem's cheesy over-enunciation of "Jack Sparrow" is delightful; Geoffrey Rush still wrestling some poignancy from his Captain Barbossa character; the original theme from composer Hans Zimmer can probably still shiver your timbers after all these years. (I'm saddened to report that Paul McCartney's cameo is so brief and inconsequential it barely registers.) Again, most of these pleasures are independent of Depp, suggesting the series could benefit from a total reboot or pivot.

Here's one thing in the movie that doesn't work: the reappearance of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as Will and Elizabeth Turner, the parents of this film's bland pseudo-protagonist Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites). Bloom appears in the prologue at the beginning of the movie, living a cursed life aboard the Flying Dutchman, and he appears again at its close once his curse has been lifted. In a bizarre moment at the end, Knightley's Elizabeth appears seemingly from nowhere over a hill, runs into Will's arms, and kisses him for a mushy reunion. (In a fitting twist for this dude-centric film, Knightley has zero lines.)

It's a scene that speaks to the awkward way Pirates, a product of the pre-Marvel era, has struggled to fit into the fan-service-ey demands of modern blockbuster-dom. Unless you are a diehard Pirates fan, you probably don't even remember what happened to Will or Elizabeth in the previous movies. Similarly, when the tentacle-faced villain Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) appears in the perfunctory post-credits scene, waking Will from a good night's sleep, you'll struggle to remember why he's important. The truth is he's not. 

These post-credits scene are just chum tossed in the internet waters. As Bustle points out, the last film in the Pirates series, 2011's Bloom-and-Knightley-less On Stranger Tides, ended with a tag of Penelope Cruz's character Angelica discovering a Jack Sparrow voodoo doll. That scene had no bearing on this new film. Compared to the dutiful storytelling of Marvel, there's something almost charming about the haphazard way these Pirates movies treat the larger narrative world of the series. When nothing matters, anything can happen. 

This may not be a "Dark Universe" movie... but maybe it could be? What if Jack Sparrow is actually The Mummy? What if Bardem's character is secretly Frankenstein? What if the monkey is... the Wolfman? Dead men may tell no tales, but they sure do print money.

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.